Kitsch /kɪtʃ/ is a term of German or Yiddish origin that has been used to categorize art that is considered an inferior, tasteless copy of an existing style. The term is also used more loosely in referring to any art that is pretentious to the point of being in bad taste, and also commercially produced items that are considered trite or crass.
Because the word was brought into use as a response to a large amount of art in the 19th century where the aesthetic of art work was associated with a sense of exaggerated sentimentality or melodrama, kitsch is most closely associated with art that is sentimental; however, it can be used to refer to any type of art that is deficient for similar reasons—whether it tries to appear sentimental, glamorous, theatrical, or creative, kitsch is said to be a gesture imitative of the superficial appearances of art. It is often said that kitsch relies on merely repeating convention and formula, lacking the sense of creativity and originality displayed in genuine art.
The word eventually came to mean "a slapping together" (of a work of art). Kitsch became defined as an aesthetically impoverished object of shoddy production, meant more to identify the consumer with a newly acquired class status than to invoke a genuine aesthetic response. Kitsch was considered aesthetically impoverished and morally dubious, and to have sacrificed aesthetic life to a pantomime of aesthetic life, usually, but not always, in the interest of signalling one’s class status.
However, there is a philosophical background to kitsch criticism which is largely ignored. An exception is Gabrielle Thuller, pointing to how kitsch criticism is based on Immanuel Kant`s philosophy of aesthetics. Kant describes the direct appeal to the senses as ”barbaric”. Thuller`s point is supported by Mark A. Cheetham, who points out that kitsch ”is his [Clement Greenberg`s] barbarism”. A source book on texts critical of kitsch underlines this by including excerpts from Kant´s and Schiller`s writings (issued by Reclam publishing company). (For book references, see beneath.) One thus has to keep in mind two things: 1) Kant`s enormous influence on the concept of ”fine art” (the focus of Cheetham`s book), as it came into being in the mid to late 18th century, and 2) how ”sentimentality” or ”pathos” (defining traits of kitsch) do not find room within Kant`s ”aesthetical indifference”. Kant also identified genius with originality. One could say he was implicitly rejecting kitsch, the presence of sentimentality and the lack of originality being the main accusations against it. This stands in stark contrast to f. ex. the Baroque period, when a painter was hailed for his ability to imitate other masters (one such imitator being Luca Giordano). Another influential philosopher on fine art was G. W. F. Hegel, emphasizing the idea of the artist belonging to the spirit of his time (”Zeitgeist”). As an effect of these aesthetics, working with emotional and ”unmodern” (or ”archetypical”) motifs was referred to as kitsch from the second half of the 19th century on. Kitsch is thus necessarily seen as ”false”.
As Thomas Kulka writes, ”the term kitsch was originally applied exclusively to paintings”, but it soon spread to other disciplines such as music. The term has been applied to painters such as Ilja Repin (Clement Greenberg, ”Avantgarde and Kitsch”), and composers such as Tschaikovskij, whom Hermann Broch refers to as ”genialischer kitsch”, or ”kitsch of genius”. (Also referred to in: Theodor Adorno, ”Musikalische Warenanalysen” and Carl Dahlhaus, ”Über musikalischen Kitsch”.
The word was popularized in the 1930s by the theorists Theodor Adorno, Hermann Broch, and Clement Greenberg, who each sought to define avant-garde and kitsch as opposites. To the art world of the time, the immense popularity of kitsch was perceived as a threat to culture. The arguments of all three theorists relied on an implicit definition of kitsch as a type of false consciousness, a Marxist term meaning a mindset present within the structures of capitalism that is misguided as to its own desires and wants. Marxists imagine there to be a disjunction between the real state of affairs and the way that they phenomenally appear.
Adorno perceived this in terms of what he called the "culture industry," where the art is controlled and formulated by the needs of the market and given to a passive population which accepts it—what is marketed is art that is non-challenging and formally incoherent, but which serves its purpose of giving the audience leisure and something to watch. It helps serve the oppression of the population by capitalism by distracting them from their alienation. Contrarily, art for Adorno is supposed to be subjective, challenging, and oriented against the oppressiveness of the power structure. He claimed that kitsch is parody of catharsis, and a parody of aesthetic experience.
Broch called kitsch "the evil within the value-system of art"—that is, if true art is "good," kitsch is "evil." While art was creative, Broch held that kitsch depended solely on plundering creative art by adopting formulas that seek to imitate it, limiting itself to conventions and demanding a totalitarianism of those recognizable conventions. Broch accuses kitsch of not participating in the development of art, having its focus directed at the past, and Greenberg speaks of its concern with previous cultures. (Seeing this as something negative is obviously a result of the influence of Kant`s idea of originality and Hegel`s Zeitgeist theory on the concept of ”fine art” - and quite the opposite of the Renaissance mindset. Michelangelo, f. ex., started his career by making a fake ”antique” Cupid, as Rona Goffen recounts in ”Renaissance Rivals”.). To Broch, kitsch was not the same as bad art; it formed a system of its own. He argued that kitsch involved trying to achieve “beauty” instead of “truth” and that any attempt to make something beautiful would lead to kitsch. Consequently, he opposes the Renaissance (trying to win over death through a ”heathen” and life celebraing attitude - equivalent to kitsch) to Protestantism, with its ascetic tendencies (equivalent to art).
Greenberg held similar views to Broch, concerning the beauty/truth division; believing that the avant-garde arose in order to defend aesthetic standards from the decline of taste involved in consumer society, and seeing kitsch and art as opposites. He outlined this in his essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch." One of his more controversial claims was that kitsch was equivalent to Academic art: "All kitsch is academic, and conversely, all that is academic is kitsch." He argued this based on the fact that Academic art, such as that in the 19th century, was heavily centered in rules and formulations that were taught and tried to make art into something learnable and easily expressible. He later came to withdraw from his position of equating the two, as it became heavily criticized. While it is true that some Academic art might have been kitsch, not all of it is, and not all kitsch is academic.
Other theorists over time have also linked kitsch to totalitarianism. The Czech writer Milan Kundera, in his book The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), defined it as "the absolute denial of shit." He wrote that kitsch functions by excluding from view everything that humans find difficult to come to terms with, offering instead a sanitised view of the world in which "all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions."
In its desire to paper over the complexities and contradictions of real life, kitsch, Kundera suggested, is intimately linked with totalitarianism. In a healthy democracy, diverse interest groups compete and negotiate with one another to produce a generally acceptable consensus; by contrast, "everything that infringes on kitsch," including individualism, doubt, and irony, "must be banished for life" in order for kitsch to survive. Therefore, Kundera wrote, "Whenever a single political movement corners power we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch." (One should, however, keep in mind the observation of Boris Groys, 2004: ”Art is originally propaganda for itself, consequently it can effortlessly be used as propaganda for something else: as political propaganda...” – from Haus der Kunst-News, 18. July 2007. Groys is professor für Kunstwissenschaft, Philosophie und Medientheorie at the Hochschule für gestaltung, Karlsruhe).
For Kundera, "Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch."
Nineteenth century academic art is still often seen as kitsch, though this view is coming under attack from modern critics. Broch argued that the genesis of kitsch was in Romanticism, which wasn’t kitsch itself but which opened the door for kitsch taste, by emphasizing the need for expressive and evocative art work. Academic art, which continued this tradition of Romanticism, has a twofold reason for its association with kitsch.
It is not that it was found to be accessible—in fact, it was under its reign that the difference between high art and low art was first defined by intellectuals. Academic art strove towards remaining in a tradition rooted in the aesthetic and intellectual experience. Intellectual and aesthetic qualities of the work were certainly there—good examples of academic art were even admired by the avant-garde artists who would rebel against it. There was some critique, however, that in being "too beautiful" and democratic it made art look easy, non-involving and superficial. According to Tomas Kulka, any academic painting made after the time of academism, is kitsch by nature.
Many academic artists tried to use subjects from low art and ennoble them as high art by subjecting them to interest in the inherent qualities of form and beauty, trying to democratize the art world. In England, certain academics even advocated that the artist should work for the marketplace. In some sense the goals of democratization succeeded, and the society was flooded with Academic art, the public lining up to see art exhibitions as they do to see movies today. Literacy in art became widespread, as did the practice of art making, and there was a blurring between high and low culture. This often led to poorly made or poorly conceived artworks being accepted as high art. Often art which was found to be kitsch showed technical talent, such as in creating accurate representations, but lacked good taste.
Secondly, the subjects and images presented in academic art, though original in their first expression, were disseminated to the public in the form of prints and postcards—which was often actively encouraged by the artists—and these images were endlessly copied in kitschified form until they became well known clichés.
The avant-garde reacted to these developments by separating itself from the aspects of art such as pictorial representation and harmony that were appreciated by the public, in order to make a stand for the importance of the aesthetic. Many modern critics try not to pigeonhole academic art into the kitsch side of the art/kitsch dichotomy, recognizing its historical role in the genesis of both the avant-garde and kitsch.
With the emergence of Postmodernism in the 1980s, the borders between kitsch and high art became blurred again. One development was the approval of what is called "camp taste" - which can be related to but is not the same as Camp as a "gay sensibility. Camp, in some circles, refers to an ironic appreciation of that which might otherwise be considered corny, such as singer/dancer Carmen Miranda with her tutti-frutti hats, or otherwise kitsch, such as popular culture events which are particularly dated or inappropriately serious, such as the low-budget science fiction movies of the 1950s and 60s. A hypothetical example from the world of painting would be a kitsch image of a deer by the lake. In order to make this Camp, one could paint a sign beside it, saying "No Swimming". The majestical or romantic impression of a stately animal would be punctured through humour; the notion of an animal receiving a punishment for the breach of the rule is patently ludicrous. The original, serious sentimentality of the motif is neutralized, and thus it becomes Camp. Kitsch is never ironic. "Camp" is derived from the French slang term camper, which means "to pose in an exaggerated fashion." Susan Sontag argued in her 1964 Notes on "Camp" that camp was an attraction to the human qualities which expressed themselves in "failed attempts at seriousness," the qualities of having a particular and unique style and of reflecting the sensibilities of the era. It involved an aesthetic of artifice rather than of nature. Indeed, hard-line supporters of camp culture have long insisted that "camp is a lie that dares to tell the truth."
Much of Pop art attempted to incorporate images from popular culture and kitsch; artists were able to maintain legitimacy by saying they were "quoting" imagery to make conceptual points, usually with the appropriation being ironic. In Italy, a movement arose called the Nuovi Nuovi ("new new"), which took a different route: instead of quoting kitsch in an ironic stance, it founded itself in a primitivism which embraced the ugliness and garishness, emulating it as a sort of anti-aesthetic.
Conceptual art and deconstruction posed as interesting challenges, because, like kitsch, they downplayed the formal structure of the artwork in favor of elements which enter it by relating to other spheres of life.
Despite this, many in the art world continue to have an adherence to some sense of the dichotomy between art and kitsch, excluding all sentimental and realistic art from being considered seriously. This has come under attack by critics who argue for a reappreciation of Academic art and traditional figurative painting, without the concern for it appearing innovative or new. As in the surreal and figurative paintings of Lawrence Hollien. A different approach is taken by the Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum, who in 1998 for the first time argued for kitsch as a positive term, and a superstructure for figurative, non-ironic and narrative painting. In 2000, together with several other authors, he composed a book entitled “On Kitsch,” where they advocate the concept of "Kitsch" as a more correct name than "Art" on this type of painting. As a result of this, an increasing number of figurative painters are referring to themselves as "Kitsch painters", f. ex. through the web site worldwidekitsch.com. This site is also responsible for the exhibition "The Kitsch Biennale".
In any case, whatever difficulty there is in defining its boundaries with art, the word "kitsch" is still in common usage to label anything felt in bad taste.
The term "kitsch-man" (or Kitschmensch, coined by Broch) refers to an individual who compulsively metamorphoses all of his aesthetic experiences into kitsch, regardless of whether the work of art concerned is good or bad. Whenever the kitsch-man contemplates art, it always involves the adoption of a particular viewpoint, a perspective swamped with the vicarious and the sentimental. When the kitsch-man encounters a genuine artwork and its kitsch replica (e.g. a twelve-inch copy of Michaelangelo’s pieta in plaster) the response elicited will be no different. Pathos is projected onto genuine works of art, transforming art from the past into objects of sentimentality. Even nature is not immune to kitsch under the apprehension of the kitsch-man, in particular those components of nature that have endured kitsch portrayals to the extent that they have become hackneyed. A sunset, for example, could too closely resemble its representation in cheap paintings or "romantic" films; here the kitsch-man makes natural occurrences seem "false."
In his ”Phenomenology of kitsch”, Ludwig Giesz deals almost exclusively with this topic, seeking the anthropological background for kitsch. In this process he refers to Saint Augustin, who is shocked by his own enthusiasm while attending the performance of a Greek tragedy. The more the characters suffer, the more joy the audience (and previously himself) feels. If the plot is not gripping, everyone goes home disappointed. This would imply that the dichotomy between kitsch man (the rest of the audience) and ”art man” (Saint Augustin) is an age-old opposition.
One of the first painters that served as a demonstrative example of kitsch is the Hungarian Charles Roka. Despised by the art world, he was nevertheless loved by the people. He became famous for his numerous variations of the Gipsy Girl, where he painted exotic looking Gypsies in a pin-up style, and for sentimental portraits of children with their pet dogs.
A modern example of a painter considered by most art critics and academics to be producing kitsch, but who has a loyal following that generally does not claim artistic sophistication, is the commercially successful American Thomas Kinkade, who brands himself the "Painter of Light™" and claims to be the United States’ "most collected living artist." Kinkade paints scenes of stone cottages, lighthouses, cobble stone streets, rustic villages, and other vistas, with emphasis on the glittery ornamentation in the play of light and natural foliage. His work is meant to be sentimental, patriotic, quaint, spiritual, and inspirational. In the United Kingdom the artist Maggi Hambling is considered by many to be an unconscious exponent of kitsch, with the coffin-like Oscar Wilde memorial and the controversial Scallop sculpture (however, Hambling’s portraits of the dying Henrietta Moraes escape such critical accusation). Perhaps the closest British equivalent of Kinkade is the kitsch painter Jack Vettriano. A common characteristic of kitsch criticism is that it, somewhat inorganically, classifies all kitsch as simply bad, not distinguishing between different levels of quality. Some would also argue that most of the examples sited in this section are not really kitsch, but Camp, or at least embraced with a Camp mentality (”it`s cool because it`s so bad”). In Vettriano`s case, his commenting treatment of popular culture images derive his paintings of the emotional sincerity which signifies kitsch.
Several Dogs Playing Poker paintings produced in the early 20th century by C. M. Coolidge are famous examples of kitsch art. It is noteworthy that kitsch art is not necessarily inexpensive art. For example, on February 15, 2005, the C. M. Coolidge originals of "A Bold Bluff" and "Waterloo" were auctioned as a pair to an undisclosed buyer for US $590,400. The previous top price for a Coolidge was $74,000.
A painter classified as making kitsch is Margaret Keane, who worked in the ’50s and ’60s, painting mostly portraits of waif children; but whether her subject was child, adult, or animal, all of her pictures had very large, staring eyes that always directly faced the viewer.
Another painter who is commonly used as an example of kitsch is the fantasy artist Boris Vallejo, born in Peru. His painting involves muscular heroes, voluptuous ladies, and monsters, all depicted in a fantasy setting. Vallejo’s works and similar ones are often painted on the sides of vans and featured in calendars. Critics of his paintings find them garish and gaudy in similar ways to Siegfried and Roy shows in Las Vegas.
The works of Frank Frazetta have sometimes been identified as kitsch, but that classification has been disputed and is a matter of sometimes heated debate.
Velvet paintings, which are widely sold in rural U.S., usually have kitsch themes. They often depict images of Dale Earnhardt, John Wayne, Jesus, Native Americans, Cowboys, or Elvis Presley (known as a Velvet Elvis). One example of a kitsch velvet painting features an 18-wheel truck driving through the night with a ghostly image of Jesus in the sky watching protectively from above.
Some kitsch items, typically small statuettes, deviate from the original concept, such as a Santa Claus in biker garb riding a chopper. Commonly, they can also be found bearing unrelated symbols, such as the motorcycle Santa wearing Green Bay Packers colors and logo.
The musicians whose work may be considered kitsch are Stockholm Syndrome, Creed,Kid Rock, Modern Error,Telekinesis for Cats and Bosnian rock band Divlje Jagode. The Eurovision Song Contest is considered by some to be an example of kitsch. One could also consider such music to be examples of the closely related concept of camp.
Las Vegas is considered by many the pinnacle of architectural kitsch in the world, and may be used as good example of how luxury and kitsch can be together. 1959 Cadillacs also seem to illustrate this. The plastic pink flamingo lawn icon, popularized in the 1950s, has been reviled as kitschy bad taste or revered as retro cool.
These are only strong, defining examples of what art purists refer to as kitsch—many would say that it saturates all popular culture, and some would equate popular culture and kitsch as being one and the same; as Clement Greenberg remarked, kitsch is "all that is spurious in the life of our times" (from "Avantgarde and Kitsch", in Greenberg 1989).